Shortly before the reversion of Hong Kong to Communist control, I took my family there one last time before what I expected to be the imposition of an Iron Curtain around that enclave of freedom on the fringes of mainland China.
I frankly thought that the “One Country, Two Systems” approach agreement with Hong Kong between the Beijing and the city’s British colonial overlords wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. While there, I met one of the city’s prominent British-born lawyers through a mutual friend.
The attorney had also once been a colonial judge and had a good feel for the negotiations. He believed that my fears for an immediate Communist crackdown were unfounded, but that I was right in my assessment that Beijing would eventually impose non-democratic control. He did not think that Beijing would send in tanks when that happened. Rather, he believed that the Communists would do it by gradually subverting the justice system — particularly the police and judiciary.
At the time, the Hong Kong police department was one of the best in the world with a cadre of highly trained Australian officers and a reputation for evenhandedness along all racial lines. The judiciary was also built on the democratic British model and was noted for its transparency.
My friend further explained that China — whose own economic growth was just beginning to become a phenomenon — needed Hong Kong’s capital and was not immediately inclined to mess with success. However, he believed that within a few decades, Beijing would subvert the police with a core of regime trained officers replacing the existing force by attrition.
He further believed that the legal system would eventually be made much more opaque with a series of seemingly innocuous — but increasingly repressive — tweaks until the judiciary more resembled that of the mainland. He was right.
However, Hong Kong’s highly educated and democracy-loving citizenry saw the handwriting on the wall early enough to attempt to put a brake on authoritarian encroachment. They couldn’t do much about the police force as its transformation through mainland-oriented officers has been gradual and done through bureaucratic means. The courts were another matter.
The attempted passage of the extradition law that started the current rioting was the equivalent of the tea tax that lit the fuse for the American Revolution. It was a seemingly small thing, but the Hong Kong street recognized it for what it really is — the first step in eliminating One Country, Two Systems. Hong Kong’s homegrown patriots saw this loss of self-rule as clearly as did their American counterparts in 1775.
If the regime in Beijing had still been run by committee as in was in 1997, this crisis had might have been avoided. Committees are cautious by nature, and would likely have taken an “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. However, as President Xi Jinping consolidated power, he began to do what authoritarians always do; that is pursue absolute control over everything. Now that the residents of Hong Kong have taken a stand, Mr. Xi faces some interesting options
First, he could merely reiterate the One Country Two Systems approach, and claim the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding. He could then wait for a future opportunity to try to exert increased control. This would be the smart thing to do. Protests would likely draw down eventually and Beijing could address real problems such as the decline in growth and the South China Sea. The downside, would be a perceived loss of face that most authoritarians cannot tolerate.
The second option would be a military crackdown to suppress dissent. If it came to an urban insurgency, the rebels would be defeated as Hong Kong is too small for an insurgency to succeed. However, the results would be disastrous for China’s image in the world and would likely further damage the nation’s economy at a fragile time when it is in a trade war with the United States.
The 70th anniversary of the triumph of the Red Chinese Revolution would be a terrible time for China to be shown as a brutally repressive domestic regime with the whole world watching on television and through social media.
President Xi has consolidated power in Beijing, but his sway is not unlimited. His influence is based on a strong economy and a reputation for decisive leadership and guile. If the elite army, party, and media cadres lose confidence in him, Mr. Xi will be in a great deal of trouble indeed.
• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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